Whether it was Crash Bandicoot for the PlayStation, Jak & Daxter for the PlayStation 2, or the more recent Uncharted series on the PlayStation 3, Sony second party developer Naughty Dog has been notorious for working on one game at a time and one series at a time for every Sony platform. But given how long this console generation has been, it's not at all surprising to see them release one more title that could end up being the PS3's swan song with The Last of Us.
What Is It?
The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic adventure that follows an unlikely pair that must journey through what's left of the United States in order to deliver a possible cure to the pandemic that has affected the nation.
The disease in The Last of Us is due to a fungal virus that develops in people's brains, forcing them to either go insane or lose complete control of their well-being, turning into the infected "runners" and "clickers," not zombies.
Much like The Walking Dead and other zombie stories and worlds, the world has gone through drastic change. Cities have been destroyed with oceans of rusted, unusable cars on every street. Buildings are covered with weeds and unneeded vegetation. Stores have been looted, and virtually every place that humans once inhabited are now filled with the infected.
The roles of people have changed as well. Hunting and playing your part in the community is a necessity. Ration cards are required for those that want to eat, and every member of the community has to take shifts guarding their "safe zones" from the infected. If you're not an asset to the community, you're killed.
Players are primarily thrust into the shoes of Joel, a hard-working middleaged Texan who experienced a very bleak past that has made him a dark and unfitting character. While seemingly unlikeable and overly mysterious for the most part, the game's prologue and various moments in the game tie a lot of loose ends well enough to fully appreciate his character.
Alongside him is Ellie, a 14-year-old who was born well after the pandemic had already spread. Although she's well beyond her years, the fact that she never knew what life was like before the infected starting roaming adds to her unknowing innocence.
After a series of unfortunate events, Joel is tasked with the assignment of taking Ellie to the Fireflies, a pro-life radical group opposed to the current way of living, searching for a cure–which players find out is Ellie herself.
Why Should I Care?
If any of the pre-release coverage wasn't enough of an indication, The Last of Us is very story driven and features a plot unlike anything seen in any game. Most games, movies, and other apocalyptic stories attempt to just start with the carnage right away.
As stated, the beginning of the game features a prologue that gives us a small look at how Joel's life was just before the pandemic, and it proceeds to show what it was like for others just as the virus had begun spreading. You see his struggle with work, at home with his family, and how he reacts when things aren't going his way. Then it fast forwards to the present day in the game, 20 years after the virus began spreading.
Typical of Naughty Dog's style, there's a lot of combat, or gunplay rather, in the game. But unlike a game like Uncharted, where Nathan Drake killing bandits is parodied over and over to the point where it's comical, the brutal things that Joel does to other humans (and non-humans) draws a reaction from his companion(s). Most of the time, Ellie will say things that will make you wonder if her parents put soap in her mouth, but the bottom line is that while killing is the norm in this post-pandemic lifestyle, it's still not exactly the "normal" thing to do–especially in front of a young teenager. This sort of psychologic realism really provides more reason to appreciate the atmosphere that the developers created.
As for actual gameplay, the game is essentially an adventure, action, survival, and stealth title all in one.
The adventuring aspect is well done. Taking place in various cities in the United States from Boston to Pittsburgh, the world featured in The Last of Us is huge and features environments that are intriguing to explore and loot with various puzzles to solve. In these environments, Joel will also come across memos, notes, and other trinkets to fully show how other people lived in the world, giving more background to the adventure, similar to the notes and artifacts players found in Dishonored. While there isn't any of the platforming that other modern Naughty Dog games are known for, the developers did a good job making as much of the world as interactive as they could with the PS3's power.
The action aspect in the game is mostly through combat and puzzle solving. Like Uncharted before it, Joel will discover a bunch of weapons at his disposal, each one being more impressive as the game goes on. But instead of just dealing with actual people, players have to deal with two types infected, runners and clickers. Runners are infected people that the disease hasn't taken full control of. They feature all their regular motor capabilities, but they simply have no control over themselves. Clickers on the other hand, are totally infected and this is evidenced by the fact that they make clicking noises and have ugly fungi growing all over their heads, faces, and random body parts. They literally can only be killed with weapons whereas runners can be killed through both weapons and melee combat.
In regards to the survival aspect, while Joel has access to all sorts of weapons, he doesn't and won't have all that much ammo to mess around with. So aside from just making that equipment scarce like Resident Evil does, The Last of Us features a robust recipe system that allows you to improvise with the supplies they found in your travels. For example, combining explosive powder with alcohol and a bottle makes a Molotov Bottle, which players can throw at enemies to set them on fire. Other things like first aid kits, needle bombs, and weapon upgrades can be made with supplies which all really come in handy whenever you find yourself at a bind.
As for stealth, the best method of combat in the game is to straight up avoid fighting. Luckily for players, both Joel and Ellie have terrific hearing that they can use to their advantage by holding the R2 button. This allows players to see who's nearby, whether they're living or infected.
Of course, since the game doesn't focus too heavily on one aspect, it does suffer from some problems with its overall polish.
The most obvious issue is with the game's "stealth." The game already explains that the infected don't have the best eyesight and primarily use their sense of hearing to tear things apart, but it doesn't mean people should be able to kill a clicker from behind and have another clicker literally right next to the murder not notice. Players will even run into issues where they'll kill humans, only to see other guards walk right past them and not notice a thing.
The Last of Us counters this problem with the enemy AI being totally unforgiving once they do find you. It isn't like other action games where enemies will wait while you kick ass only for them to have their asses kicked next. If enemies find you, they'll kill you. If you're fighting someone or something off, they'll gang up on you. There's no waiting. It only takes one bite from an infected to end things for you, and that's why sometimes the best course of action is to flee.
But to go along with that, the AI of your companions doesn't do much to enrich the experience either. For a game that touts sound being the most important aspect of stealth, your friends aren't doing you any favors by talking loudly and shooting things when they aren't supposed to all while randomly standing in the middle of a dangerous area.
These issues don't take away from the overall quality, but it does take away from any sort of authenticity the developers were going for with the experience.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Aside from the superb story and solid gameplay, the game's production values are top notch.
Visually, The Last of Us is outstanding and might be the only game featuring an apocalyptic setting that one might call beautiful. It's the subtleties that really add to the game's authenticity. The attention to detail from the environments all the way to Ellie's physical teenage mannerisms should definitely leave players appreciative of the game's artistic style.
The sound is also up there with the graphics when it comes to its overall quality. Voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson do a terrific job as both Joel and Ellie, showing that they're two of the best in the business. The music isn't catchy, but the tickling of strings with the various acoustic melodies really do a great job with capturing the moods you feel when you're alone, yet hopeful.
The Last of Us tells a very gripping tale and fully solidifies Naughty Dog as one of this era's top developers. This 15-hour title isn't just a game, it's a piece of art.